Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Double Indemnity (1944): Film Noir after Seventy-Five Years

September 6, 1944, release date
Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Based on the novel Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Music by Miklós Rószsa
Edited by Doane Harrison
Cinematography by John Seitz

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff
Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson
Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes
Porter Hall as Mr. Jackson
Jean Heather as Lola Dietrichson
Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson
Byron Barr as Nino Zachetti
Richard Gaines as Edward S. Norton, Jr.
Fortunio Bonanova as Sam Garlopis
John Philliber as Joe Peters
Raymond Chandler as man reading a magazine (cameo)
Bess Flowers as Norton’s secretary
Betty Farrington as Nettie, the Dietrichson’s maid
Teala Loring as Pacific All-Risk Insurance telephone operator
Sam McDaniel as Charlie, the garage attendant

Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Produced by Paramount Pictures

Billy Wilder directed many great films, some of which happen to be my personal favorites: Sunset Boulevard (1950), starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden; Some Like It Hot (1959), starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis; The Apartment (1960), starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. I have seen these films numerous times, but I hadn’t seen Double Indemnity for the first time, from beginning to end, until earlier this year.

My sister couldn’t believe that I call myself a fan of noir and I hadn’t seen the film for so long. I find it a little hard to believe myself. I often like to say that I prefer the book to the film and that I want to read the book before I see the film version. But I had read James M. Cain’s book, and I still balked at seeing the film for the longest time. And now that I have seen Double Indemnity, I see that it deserves all the praise that is directed its way. But I must confess that I struggled with writing this blog post.

It has to do with the actor playing the male lead: Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff. MacMurray is wonderfully slimy as Jeff D. Sheldrake, C. C. Baxter’s (Jack Lemmon’s) boss who offers career advancement in The Apartment only if Baxter allows his apartment to be used as a love nest for company executives. But I just cannot see MacMurray as a romantic lead or as an homme fatale. Did his starring role in the television series My Three Sons (1960–1972) ruin him as a man capable of dangerous passion? It may be part of the reason, but I am not entirely convinced. I have seen MacMurray in Borderline, a film noir in which he is paired with Claire Trevor, and I think he succeeds as a romantic lead in that film. I suspect, however, that some of the credit may be attributed to Trevor because she is fantastic in everything in which she appears. And MacMurray’s part in Borderline didn’t require lust and a lack of ethics.

(This blog post about Double Indemnity, both the novel and the film, contains spoilers.)

James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity, the story that is the basis for the film, is hard to beat for its noir characteristics, specifically its lack of redemption for all its characters. (Click here for my blog post about James M. Cain’s novel.) If I had to choose between the novel and the film (if I were stranded on a deserted ship and forced to lighten my load to avoid sinking!), I would have to pick the novel. It is pessimistic, it is bleak, it is thoroughly noir.

The ending is but one example of why I like the book more: Barton Keyes arranges an escape to Mexico via ship for Walter Huff (Walter Neff’s name in the novel), but instead Huff finds himself on board a ship that is also carrying Phyllis Nirdlinger (Phyllis Dietrichson’s name in the novel). Keyes had arranged both Phyllis’s and Walter’s ship passages; he wants to get rid of them rather than sully the name of the insurance company, his employer, by prosecuting a crime, murder, committed by one of its employees, namely, Huff. The ending isn’t stated explicitly, but Huff seems resigned to following Nirdlinger overboard into shark-infested waters because neither one of them have any other options other than the death penalty. And death by shark would be decidedly quicker than navigating the legal system.

Billy Wilder made some changes to the story in the novel because the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays code, that prevailed in the film industry at the time wouldn’t allow the subject of suicide and other topics deemed sensitive by the censors to be portrayed on-screen. (Click here for a discussion of the production code in relation to four of Wilder’s films, including Double Indemnity, at the blog site Dial M for Movies.) In the film, Barton Keyes does catch up with Walter Neff and learns that he is responsible for the murders of both Phyllis and her husband, but he is deeply disappointed because he considers Walter a friend and is rather fond of him. Keyes’s interest in Neff struck me as paternal; he takes an interest in his career path, for example, when he suggests that Neff become a claims adjustor and join his department.

In his commentary on the DVD, film historian Richard Schickel maintains that the most important relationship in the film is not the one between Phyllis and Walter but the one between Walter and Barton Keyes. Lem Dobbs states the same in the commentary he almost shares with Nick Redman (I say “almost” because Dobbs does almost all the talking), although Dobbs feels that the relationship between the two is based on an equal footing and not a father-son dynamic. But these observations just emphasize how hard it is for me to see Fred MacMurray as a man capable of passion. His portrayal of Walter Neff just doesn’t make me believe there is any lustful passion involved. Walter Neff wants the money; he wants to prove that he can beat the insurance industry at its own game. But I’m not sure he wants Phyllis Dietrichson quite as much.

Double Indemnity has earned high praise from many, and my copy of the film on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment comes with not one but two audio commentaries: one by Richard Schickel and one by film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman. The seventy-fifth anniversary of the film’s release has received plenty of attention. Click here for an example from National Public Radio (NPR).

Many film noir scholars consider Double Indemnity to be the first true film noir, the first in a genre that was yet to be named when the film was released in 1944, seventy-five years ago. Film noir is a category that is very difficult to define, however, and people define it in different ways. Even trying to define a film noir period is difficult to do. Click here for a different opinion published by The Guardian: “After The Maltese Falcon: How Film Noir Took Flight.”

There is no doubt, however, that Double Indemnity stands up to scrutiny after seventy-five years (eighty-three years for the novel). Even after several decades, the stories in both the print and film versions are absorbing, and I think it’s because they focus on the relationships among the characters. With the novel, readers can imagine the setting anyway they want to; with the film, the out-of-date styles for just about everything—from clothes to cars, even to office furniture—are clear and obvious. Yet the story still commands attention. In his audio commentary, Richard Schickel maintains that the changes to the novel for the screenplay owe their cohesion and success mostly to Billy Wilder, that he was the one who kept the focus on the characters and especially on the relationship between Walter Neff and Barton Keyes. I have to agree, and Schickel’s points are probably some of many reasons why Double Indemnity still appeals to so many fans after seventy-five years.

This blog post about Double Indemnity is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 Fall Blogathon: The Anniversary Blogathon. It’s a celebration of ten years of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here for the complete list of blogathon participants and links to their entries.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The Chocolate Cobweb (Book) (1948)

The Chocolate Cobweb, by Charlotte Armstrong
New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1948

List of main characters:
Kate Garth
Amanda (Mandy) Garth, Kate’s daughter, twenty-three years old
John Garth, Kate’s husband, deceased
Tobias (Toby) Garrison
Ione Garrison, Tobias’s wife
Tobias Thone Garrison, Tobias’s son
Gene Noyes, chemist at Callahan, Amanda’s boyfriend
Fanny Austin, actress
Belle Thorne, Tobias’s first wife
Lieutenant Ellis (El) Kelly, officer with the Pasadena Police

The image on the right is the front and spine dust cover of The Chocolate Cobweb, by Charlotte Armstrong, from the 1952 hardcover edition published by Peter Davies, London. Quotations provided in this blog post are from the 1948 edition published by Coward-McCann, Inc.

The Chocolate Cobweb reads more like a Nancy Drew novel in some ways. The ending seems a bit saccharine, and it is certainly saccharine compared to the film, Merci pour le chocolat, which is based on Charlotte Armstrong’s novel. It’s a satisfying read, in spite of its ending, and it’s always great to discover another source for noir that is written by a woman.

The Chocolate Cobweb opens in Los Angeles, with Amanda Garth and her mother Kate entertaining a cousin, Edna Garfield, who is visiting from New York. On the morning of her departure, the local newspaper has a feature on Tobias Garrison, a famous painter who is showing some of his work in a local gallery. Edna lets it slip in front of Amanda that there had been a mix-up at the hospital twenty-three years ago, when Amanda Garth was born. It seems Tobias Garrison thought she was his daughter when his wife had actually given birth to his son, Thone. Amanda is immediately curious about this bit of family lore and decides to visit the Peck Galleries, where she can find a showing of Tobias’s paintings.

At the Peck Galleries, Amanda sees Tobias’s most famous painting “Belle in the Doorway” and falls in love with it, so to speak. Mr. and Mrs. Garrison make a surprise visit to the galleries while Amanda is there, and their son Thone Garrison arrives soon after his parents. Amanda resolves to meet them all, but not at the Peck Galleries. Instead, she finds their phone number and home address and pays them a visit.

The novel then switches perspective: to Ione Garrison. She makes hot chocolate, sleeping pills in her left hand, and plots Thone’s “apparent suicide.” She tries to formulate a logical motive for him to commit suicide—something about a letter from a female friend or girlfriend. No one suspected Ione when she slipped pills into Belle Garrison’s drink, and she doubts anyone will suspect her now. Tobias Garrison uses chloral (its use as a sedative was more common in the late nineteenth century) to help him sleep, and Ione does the same with barbiturates, so everyone knows that the pills would be easy to come by.

Amanda uses art as an excuse to introduce herself to the Garrisons and to meet Thone. She paints and works as a designer, and she decides a little bit of artistic license will suit her needs:
She rehearsed again her little speech. It wasn’t a speech to be said over the telephone, nor could she make an appointment to say it. No, she must just go, just barge in. . . . [ellipses in original]
Take her courage in her hand. Courage? Crust, thought Amanda. Oh, well, blame it on Art. She wanted to paint, ergo, she was a little bit crazy. (page 29)

Amanda’s ruse works. And Tobias is curious about her when she reveals that they “met” twenty-three years ago, that is, when she and Thone might have been mixed up at birth:

. . . She said, “I am an art student, Mr. Garrison. And I haven’t quite as much n-nerve as I thought I had. I came because we’ve met before.”
                “Is that so?” Tobias’ voice was smoother than she would have expected it to be. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember you. Perhaps you’ll remind me?”
                Something touched the backs of her legs. Thone had brought her an armless chair. Amanda sat down with quite successful steadiness. She kept her back straight and leaned forward. “It was a long time ago, sir.”
                His head cocked politely.
                She said. “Isn’t it true, Mr. Garrison, that when your son was born, the nurse showed you the wrong child?”
                He straightened, where he sat, with shock. “That’s so,” he said. His eyes held hers now and she was aware of nothing else.
                “I am the wrong child,” said Mandy. “So you see, we have met, although I don’t remember you, either.” (pages 31–32)

During this same visit, Ione Garrison takes Amanda to Thone’s room to see another portrait of Belle. Ione purposely knocks over a thermos of hot chocolate, the one that readers know also contains the sleeping pills. Amanda helps clean up the mess with an old handkerchief, and Ione demands to have it so that she can clean it for Amanda. Amanda makes a switch and gives her a new, monogrammed handkerchief because she is now suspicious of Ione Garrison’s motives. Another possible intrigue in the making occurs on Amanda’s way out of the Garrisons’ house: Thone accompanies Amanda and requests that she talk to Tobias only of art and painting, not of Belle. Amanda gives the soiled handkerchief to her boyfriend Gene to test at a friend’s lab, and he discovers that the handkerchief has what he calls “sleeping dope” on it. Amanda begins to wonder if someone means harm to Thone, and she wants to warn Thone.

Thone goes to the Garths to confront Amanda. She admits that she is trying to confuse Ione about the circumstances of her birth because she’s upset about what she thinks are Ione’s murderous intentions toward Thone. She and Thone argue because he doesn’t believe Amanda. Amanda tells Thone that she will accept his father’s and Ione’s invitation to return to their home and that she will prove Ione wants to murder anyone having something to do with Belle. Amanda will convince Ione that she thinks she is Belle’s daughter and thus tempt Ione to murder her. Thone finally agrees to Amanda’s plan because he sees that she cares about what happens to him.

From this point on in the novel, the plot concentrates on Amanda’s attempts to solve what she thinks is Ione Garrison’s murderous plot and to discover if it has any connection to the death of Thone’s mother, Belle Garrison.

(This blog post about the novel The Chocolate Cobweb contains spoilers.)

I first saw Merci pour le chocolat, the 2000 French film based on The Chocolate Cobweb, quite a while ago, and I decided that I had to read the book. I had already read Mischief, also by Charlotte Armstrong, which I found to be dark (and thoroughly noir) but almost demoralizing because the characters were so unpleasant. In fact, I found Mischief mercifully short and the film based on it, Don’t Bother to Knock, so much more enjoyable.

Click on each title in the list below to see my blog post about each:
Don’t Bother to Knock (film based on the novel Mischief)
Merci pour le chocolat (film based on The Chocolate Cobweb)

So imagine my surprise at the conclusion of The Chocolate Cobweb, which reads more like a Nancy Drew novel in some ways. Amanda solves the mystery and escapes harm, and the young lovers (I won’t give the names for this detail away) are engaged to be married at the end. Quite the surprise! The Chocolate Cobweb was published in 1948, three years before the publication of Mischief. Did life experience darken Armstrong’s views of life and romance in the interim? Her fiction was published during the McCarthy era, so maybe politics and political corruption played a part.

From everything that I have read about Charlotte Armstrong, most of it online, there seems to be little known about her personal life. I did discover that many of her stories were made into movies, both foreign and American. Here are some links for those who want to find more information (click on each website title):

I enjoyed reading The Chocolate Cobweb more than Mischief, although the ending seems a bit saccharine, and it is certainly saccharine compared to the film. Isabelle Huppert gives a commanding performance in Merci pour le chocolat. Her character, based on Ione Garrison, is the focus of the film, and Huppert never lets viewers forget that shift in focus from Amanda Garth in the novel to Marie-Claire (aka Mika) Muller in the film, no matter who is on-screen. The plot in the book is easier to follow: Armstrong’s writing is very clear. The film is a neo-noir in which all the details matter, and I found that reading the book after seeing Merci pour le chocolat the first time helped a bit, especially for the opening sequences, when I saw the film a second time. Seeing the film again made me appreciate the story, in print and on film, that much more.